This is the fourth and final article in a series about taking steps to build audacity. Read my first article, The Unfiltered Life, in which I describe how women of color filter out their difference in unsafe company cultures, and my second article, Six Tenets of a Safe Company Culture. My third article, Who Does the Office Housework?, explains how women can leverage their mastery and executive function.
What Disruption Looks Like
Maybe you’ll recognize the following scenes of disruption:
During a meeting with your team, a male colleague repeats your idea and takes, or is given, credit. You stop the meeting and point out when you proposed the original idea and thank everyone for being on board with you. You’ve disrupted a sexist assumption of credit.
When it becomes clear that your coworkers’ opinion about you are being formed by stereotypes, you address these micro-aggressions, correcting assumptions about your hair, skin color, tastes, family structure, abilities, etc. You’ve disrupted bias and stereotypes.
Back from maternity leave, your coworkers begin to limit all conversations with you on your beautiful new baby, to the point that you miss vital work information and fall out of the loop on project components you’re responsible for. You tell them you appreciate their interest but want to make sure you don’t miss any more crucial details. You’ve disrupted (unintentional) workplace exclusion.
Your performance evaluation is stellar in all categories, but during your review meeting your supervisor says, “Something I actually need you to work on is being a little nicer to everyone in the office.” You challenge him to articulate how this has any part in your formal evaluation, and whether any others at your level are receiving the same feedback. You’ve disrupted a sexist expectation of social norms.
So, You’ve Disrupted. Now What?
In my last article, I defined disruption as an act of recognizing and calling out workplace bias, whether it be sexist, racist, homophobic, ableist, etc. You may have seen or experienced something similar to the scenarios above, all of which come from true accounts of women I work with. If so, you know that the space after a disruption can be strained, tense, and uncomfortable, if not overtly tinged with anger or resentment.
For women in the workplace, disruption is sometimes a necessity, but know that is always your choice, always a deliberate act. You are not called upon to disrupt continually or even at all.
Bias disruption is a strategy, deployed with forethought and intention. You don’t disrupt simply to be confrontational or embarrass someone (though, that may happen anyway). Disrupting bias is the first step in a process of moving past the bias.
The question then becomes, why and when do you choose to disrupt bias?
Understand the Purpose of Disruption
Whatever your industry or position, bias and prejudice are disenfranchising you. This subtle and unconscious disenfranchisement inhibits how you do your work and how you advance your career.
Sometimes bias—especially pointed racist or sexist behavior—can cause us to get stuck in the discomfort or even trauma of the moment. Disruption can help move you out of a position of disenfranchisement.
Before You Disrupt
Because disruption is a conscious act and deliberate choice, you need to see a few steps ahead of the moment.
Make Your Choice
Before you can disrupt, you have to be able to recognize racism, bias, and prejudice as it’s happening. This is not always easy to do. And just because you recognize it doesn’t mean you have to do anything about it. If you are confident that what is happening is a bias impacting you or your ability to do your job, you disrupt to address and move past the bias, and to change the behavior.
Make Sure You’re within a Safe Company Culture
Before you disrupt, you need to know that you are in an environment that is invested in you, where you can advance your career and move forward with the coworkers around you. A safe company culture is one in which you are encouraged to take risks, held equally among others to the same high standards, and are able to bring your whole self and diverse perspectives to the table.
If your company culture is not like the one I just described, then you need to consider whether you disrupt. Ask yourself if you can envision sitting down with the person or persons whose bias you are about to disrupt, and engage in a civil, open conversation without fear of reprisal.
When the answer is no, women sometimes save their energy for seeking out that safe culture elsewhere. Some women do disrupt anyway. Only you can decide if it’s worth the risk and your emotional effort.
Disruption is a strategy for moving your career forward, but it only works in a place where moving forward is truly possible.
Two Caveats about Disruption
1. You shouldn’t have to do it constantly.
Disruption shouldn’t be a regular or frequent occurrence. Hopefully, you are doing work you love and are good at, and can identify many positive aspects of your job and colleagues. Because you respect them, want to move forward with them, and believe they will move forward with you, you disrupt bias to establish boundaries and change negative behaviors.
2. Disruption is a career tool, not a remedy for ongoing harassment, hostility, or threat, or hostility. If you’re currently under one of those extraordinary burdens, know that you have the right not to work under those conditions, to seek recourse with HR, and find other ways to care for yourself.
After Disruption: Reconciliation
Given the nature and repercussions of bias, it’s easy to get on board with why we should disrupt. But, why reconcile with people who launched bias our way? What would that even look like?
Understand that reconciliation does not simply mean making up or making nice. It does not mean that you apologize for your disruption or promise never to do it again. Your disruption was not the problem.
Disrupting someone’s bias is hard, and it can leave hard feelings. Disruption causes a rift, a distance. Repair and reconciliation—and ultimately leadership—mean that you bring your audience back to you and close that distance, so you can move forward beyond the bias and beyond the disruption. So you can change and even improve relationships.
And, whether we’d like the responsibility or not, because reconciliation requires leadership from someone who is comfortable talking about difference, it’s usually left to us to initiate and facilitate. If an organization is truly invested, you sometimes must guide them on how to best support you.
Tools of Reconciliation
In the corporate world, vulnerability is not usually valued. And yet, it’s the very thing that is going to lead you and others through disruption, so you can move forward together.
Admitting that an act of bias, whether intentional or not, has affected us makes us vulnerable. To call out bias requires having to admit that we’ve been hurt, marginalized, excluded, or demeaned. We have to share our anger or frustration, then go beyond those to the deeper reason the bias mattered to us.
In addition to your own vulnerability, there’s the person whose behavior has been disrupted. They may be feeling vulnerable and exposed in facing an area in which they lack expertise and competence.
Therefore, it’s your own and the other person’s vulnerabilities you need to manage. Know that your bias disruption has also caused secondary disruption: upending the other person’s ability to manage the situation.
Once vulnerabilities are acknowledged, you proceed with reconciliation through deep listening. It’s the only way to bring your listener back to you. By this I mean, while the person may be in the room with you, the disruption has caused a rift, a distance between you. Executing deep listening is the way to close that distance.
You lead in reconciling by listening to how someone feels. Not to manage their feelings, but to make them feel heard.
Deep listening challenges the way we normally engage in conversation. It is a transformative communication tool that asks you to not to interject how you feel and focus solely on the needs and feelings of the speaker.
In all these ways, deep listening cuts through defensiveness and objections, allowing us to find a way forward after disruption.
Reconciliation is a tool to get others to trust you and be led by you. After bias disruption, a person’s first reaction is often defensiveness and shutting down. Deploying vulnerability and deep listening are your strategies to repair a strained or damaged relationship.
Moving forward can look like many things: setting new boundaries, establishing new trust, heightening respect, reaching outside your comfort zone, building awareness of one’s privilege, position, and assumptions, and working together in new ways.
If the relationship matters to you and you can see a way forward, then all the steps I’ve outlined in this article will move you toward a new footing after bias disruption. I often see relationships improve and deepen after this kind of work. It is my hope that if you must disrupt, you have the tools to make it part of your long-term career strategy.
Find Other Women with Audacity
There are more steps to deep listening, more tools to reconciliation, and more ways to understand disruption.
If what you’ve read here strikes a chord, then join us on November 8, 2018, for Building Audacity. This day-long, interactive retreat will be led by Jennifer McClanahan-Flint of Leverage to Lead, letting you experience the steps of building a career with audacity in a room full of women who understand and relate to what you’re navigating in the workplace.